HR Administration

James Wallman Interview: Experiencing Stuffocation

By Rick Bell

May. 25, 2015

Is your desk a mess? Is your career all about gear? Is your workplace being stuffocated by too much … stuff? It’s time to tune in the James Wallman Experience and tune out all of the things choking your business and your life. Wallman recently penned the book “Stuffocation: Why We’ve Had Enough of Stuff and Need Experience More Than Ever.” Managing Editor Rick Bell experienced Wallman via email. No unnecessary ’stuff’ was used in the writing of this Q&A.


Workforce: It’s an interesting title and an engaging way to think. How does “stuffocation” apply to the business world?

James Wallman: In two key ways. First, physically: just as too much stuff in our homes can cause stress, cluttered workplaces can as well. Get rid of the clutter — physical and digital — you don't need or use anymore. You'll feel lighter, more able to concentrate, and you'll enjoy work more.

Second, “experientially”—by that I'm referring to the key learning of Stuffocation: people are shifting from a materialistic mindset to an “experientialist” one. Instead of looking for happiness, identity, status, and meaning in material stuff, they are realizing that the best place to find them is in experiences instead. That means people are becoming less bothered about working hard at a job they don't enjoy to buy stuff they don't need to impress people they don't like.James Wallman May 2015

Don't get me wrong. People are still happy to work hard, and they still want to be successful. But they're defining success in a new, broader way. Success is becoming less defined by what you earn, and more by other factors: what sort of work do you do? Does it have any meaning for you? Do you believe in the company's purpose or mission? What is your commute like? What is the office like? How's the culture? What is your experience of work?

What we're seeing is a revolution in what matters to people. Now we have so much stuff we have standards of living that our ancestors can barely have imagined, we are more interested in quality of life—in the personal sphere, and in our work lives.

WF: Don’t businesses need ‘stuff’ to evolve and prosper? Like new laptops? Or more capital?

Wallman: Businesses need to make money to prosper, but they don't necessarily need to sell physical stuff. They need to have sustaining business models that result in profit. The message of Stuffocation isn't anti-consumerism, anti-capitalism or even anti-business. The message of Stuffocation, for businesses, is that the best place to connect with consumers and be sustainable in the long term is to evolve away from business plans based on materialism, and toward strategies based on experientialism. So instead of trying to sell as much material stuff as possible — which will exacerbate all the problems that come with Stuffocation, like damaging the planet, creating clutter in people's homes, causing anxiety and stress — smart businesses will dematerialize their offer, reduce their negative footprint, and focus on selling the best experiences they can.

WF: The C-suite loves to talk about ROI, which it seems that you can put on ‘stuff.’ How do you quantify experience?

Wallman: Easy: you can quantify ROI on experience by looking at productivity. And it's been proved that engaged, happy, driven workers – that is, people who are having a good experience at work – are more productive. 

WF: What is the one thing a people manager can do to promote experience over stuff?

Wallman: It all depends on your firm's particular issue, of course, but if I were to say one thing: Make the experience of work better. Consider the “Hotel California” model of the future of work: Make coming to work so much fun people don't really want to leave. That might mean giving people purpose (see B Corporations for more on that), or creating great breakout spaces (be inspired by Google's pool tables, coffee machines, and ping pong tables), or just making the overall experience of work more fun (look at Zappos come-as-you-are policy for inspiration on that).

WF: You talk about the experience economy. Isn’t that another way to say clever marketing? What does it mean?

Wallman: The experience economy is far more than experiential marketing. The experience economy is the business world's manifestation of our wider culture's shift from materialism to experientialism. This is exemplified in three key areas: people, the government, business. People are shifting their allegiance from material to experiences – from having things to doing things. The government is shifting its focus (slowly) from a material, standard-of-living focus, as measured by GDP, to being more concerned with people's experiences — their quality of life. Since President Obama signed The Key National Indicators Act in March 2010, the State of the USA has been working out how to calculate quality of life. And the businesses doing best — and set to do ever better in the future — are doing so through the services, adventures, and experiences they offer.

This is especially important if you want to sell (both your products and the idea of working for your company) to today's influencers. Since they are most likely to be at the higher end of the socio-economic scale, they're even more likely to have more than enough stuff — the sort of people who have shifted their allegiance from the material to the experiential. So they're the ones who already prefer less stuff—less material, less clutter—and instead want experiences they can tell other people about and give them a sense of who they are as well. The businesses that realise that, and which are shifting their business models to reflect this—like Patagonia, TOMS, and Uber—are the ones set to do best.

WF: What have you disposed of and experienced in the past year?

Wallman: Bucketloads. I've got rid of shoes and clothes I don't wear. I've got rid of books I've read and won't read again, and books that have sat on my shelf for years making me feel guilty for not reading them. I threw out the spare mugs that clog up the cupboard. We got rid of the juicer we don't use anymore. We got rid of the wall prints we don't love. I scanned all the articles I've had published over all these years and threw out the hard copies.Experiences? My son was born a year ago and I have a 3-year-old so I have all the magical experiences that come with being a dad. I take my little girl to the Natural History Museum — she's now a dinosaur expert. I take her to swimming classes — and she can now swim underwater. I went to see a play with my wife, and we go to her gym to relax. We went on holiday to England's south coast: we walked on the beach, we swam in the sea. I learned how to meditate. I attended a shamanistic ceremony. I play soccer every week with my brother and some friends. And on the day I turned 40, one of the world's great publishers bought my book, and I got to work with two brilliant editors in London and New York to make my book and its message easier to read, and more meaningful for people. It's been an incredible, exciting, experiential year.

Rick Bell is Workforce’s editorial director. For comments or questions email editors@workforce.com.

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